Still Don’t Know Much About History? Five Takeaways From the Nation’s Report Card on Social Studies

what_do_students_know_about_history?This week, the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released data that reveals how well U.S. students understand U.S. history, the fundamentals of its democratic government and global geography. The Nation’s Report Card: 2014 U.S. History, Geography, and Civics details eighth graders’ performance (in a “nationally-representative”  sample of 29,000 students) and compares it with results from previous years.

The results can be accessed through a useful interactive tool in which you can also see how students scored on specific questions. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights:

1. Student Performance Has Flatlined

Since 2010, eighth graders have made no substantial academic progress in U.S. history, geography or civics. The report card shows that 27 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above proficient in geography, 23 percent scored at or above proficient in civics and only 18 percent in U.S. history. Only 3 percent or less scored at the advanced level in any of the three subjects. These results are virtually unchanged from 2010, even though they are higher than scores from the mid-1990s.

2. Hispanic Students Are Making Gains

Since 2010, more Hispanic students are taking the test, and, although their civics scores are flat, they made significant improvements in U.S. history and geography. White students’ scores were slightly higher in U. S. history and civics and remained unchanged in geography. The scores of black and Asian/Pacific Islander students remained flat in all categories.

Generally, the results indicate that the lowest-performing children performed better in the all three subjects than they did four years ago, slowly catching up to top-performing students. “The gaps are closing, ” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of NCES.

Average score changes between 2010 and 2014 in NAEP at grade 8 and achievement level results in 2014, by subject. Source: The Nation’s Report Card: 2014 U.S. History, Geography, and Civics

Average score changes between 2010 and 2014 in NAEP at grade 8 and achievement level results in 2014, by subject. Source: The Nation’s Report Card: 2014 U.S. History, Geography, and Civics

3. Social Studies Learning is More Digital, Less Reliant on Textbooks

As part of the NAEP assessment, students answered questions about their experiences studying history, civics. The responses revealed an expected shift from 2010 in how they access content. For example, the percentage of history students who said they read material from a textbook decreased from 73 to 64. Those who reported watching a subject-related movie or video at least weekly increased from 34 to 43 percent. The percentage of students who used a computer on a weekly basis for history class jumped from 18 to 25. The trends were evident across all three subjects.

 4. Students Like Social Studies

About two-thirds (69%) of eighth-graders in 2014 report that social studies was one of their favorite subjects, and over one-half of students (55%) often or always agreed that the work was interesting. Both of these percentages were higher in 2014 than in 2010.

5. Everyone Agrees – We Must Do Better

Despite the few random bright spots in the data, no one who cares about public education should be content with with the stagnant results found in the NAEP report card.

“Geography, U.S. history and civics are core academic subjects that must be a priority. They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy,” said Terry Mazany, chairman of the board that oversees NAEP. “The lack of knowledge on the part of America’s students is unacceptable,

There’s no question that social studies education has been marginalized over the past decade by the onslaught of standardized testing and the recent focus on STEM. “Subjects in the social studies realm take a back seat,” Chasidy White, an Alabama history teacher and NAEP board member said in response to the results.

“There’s no big initiative out there for social studies. Social studies needs its own champion,” White added.

Absent any new national spotlight on our students’ longstanding lackluster grasp of history and civics, White pointed out that the report contains useful information that can help educators adjust how they teach these subjects – specifically, find more engaging content sources and focus more on “two-way conversations” with students and less on lectures.

“The way students are absorbing information is changing. Instruction needs to meet students where they are to improve learning. I encourage all teachers to use these reports to spark new ideas for their classroom practices,” White said.